Don’t Feed The Monkeys! 3 Ways To Help People Solve Their Own Problems

Don't Feed the MonkeysIn my early days as a manager I used to love to feed monkeys.

“Monkeys” are the problems, issues, or challenges your employees bring you that somehow become your responsibility to manage and solve. Instead of the monkeys stopping by your office for a quick visit and going back home with their owners, they end up taking residence and you become responsible for their ongoing care.

I liked feeding monkeys because I thought I was helping people solve problems. Over time, I learned my good intentions were actually handicapping my employees from learning how to solve their own problems, resulting in me being overloaded with work.

There are three ways in which I developed that helped me stop feeding monkeys and I believe they can help you too.

1. Become a situational leader – There is no one best leadership style when it comes to managing people. People need different leadership styles depending on their competence and commitment on the specific goal or task at hand. SLII® teaches a leader to diagnose the development level (competence and commitment) of the employee and then use the appropriate leadership style (a combination of directive and supportive behavior) that will help the person develop from a beginner to an expert on the goal or task. If you don’t develop your employees’ competence and commitment in their job, they will always have to come to you to solve their problems.

Control and Responsibility Grid2. Don’t grab responsibility – One way to look at managing monkeys with your people is to examine how the elements of responsibility and control interact (see my post Losing Control & Liking It – 4 Ways to Handle Responsibility & Control for a more in-depth treatment of the topic). Managers make the mistake of grabbing control of a monkey even though they aren’t responsible for it. Leaders often fall prey to this style of relating because they think they can “fix” people or situations. GRABing control may result in short-term wins, but over the long haul it stunts people’s development and creates a state of learned helplessness.

3. Facilitate self-reliant problem solving – Part of a manager’s job is to help people learn how to solve their own problems. Assuming the manager has been a situational leader and developed the employee’s competence, and isn’t grabbing control of something they aren’t responsible for, the next step is to facilitate the process of problem solving. First, it’s important to have a clear definition of the problem. Many times the symptoms of a problem are more evident than the root cause so it’s important to investigate the underlying issues. Second, ask open-ended questions to allow the employee to think through possible solutions. Many times people just need someone with an objective point of view to help them think through the situation.

In his book, The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, Ken Blanchard says “The best way to develop responsibility in people is to give them responsibility.” If you don’t let your people solve their own problems, they’ll always look to you to do it for them. Don’t feed the monkeys!

18 Comments on “Don’t Feed The Monkeys! 3 Ways To Help People Solve Their Own Problems

  1. I really like your point 3 about facilitating self reliant problem solving. One, it makes people feel empowered to be able to make decisions that have an actual impact on their environment. Two, it highlights the future leaders of a company, the problem solvers.

    • Great insight on those two benefits of self-reliant problem solving. It gives folks a tremendous boost in confidence and autonomy when leaders help them develop their own problem solving skills.

      Thanks for the comments Josh!


  2. Reblogged this on Lead Me On and commented:
    This is a great metaphor for satisfying our own need to solve problems by making other people happy instead of providing good leadership. And there are SO many monkeys aren’t there — not just from the people we manage/lead, but from the outside world, all those little problems that would solve themselves through normal social dynamics if we didn’t meddle. I wonder if another part of this metaphor holds true — that we are distracting ourselves from bigger issues, just as we do when we go to the zoo and entertain ourselves by throwing popcorn at the chimps. It’s not good for the monkeys, and it’s not good for us.

    A great leadership/management story about taking responsibility for what is not ours. In Aloha Leadership, based on traditional Hawaiian values, feeding the monkeys translates into meddling where our expertise and input are not needed. The result? Well, if we intervene, we have to take responsibility for whatever happens. Sometimes, feeding the monkeys doesn’t solve a problem, but makes a bigger mess, and then, by rights, the leader/manager gets to clean it up. This is a great reminder to think twice before “solving” other people’s problems.

    • Excellent insights Carol! I agree that many times our efforts to control or “feed the monkeys” only makes the situation worse.

      Thanks for taking the time to contribute!


  3. Pingback: Three Ways To Help Employees Become Problem Solvers | Jim Woods Authentic Leadership Training

  4. Excellent article Deon, I recall the days of applying this style of management and found that the department could continue to run smoothly and effectively in my absence with less issues that needed to be dealt with by executive management, thus allowing you the time to get on with your own work, instead of “feeding the monkey” Excellent reading, explained well.

  5. An interesting insight from church history history and mentioned in one of Charles Handy’s books:
    Subsidiarity was first enunciated by Pope Leo XIII.
    The principle of subsidiarity holds that ‘it is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a large and higher organisation (or person) to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies . . . To steal people’s decisions is wrong . .
    The Concise Dictionary of Theology describes subsidiarity as: ‘From the Latin meaning ‘assistance’, a principle consistently endorsed by the social teaching of the Church according to which decisions and activities that naturally belong to a lower level should not be taken to a higher level’.

    • Interesting point Graham! Perhaps that is the origination of the saying “God helps those who help themselves.”? (Which many people mistakenly assume is scripture from the Bible, which it isn’t.)


  6. Yes Randy. I think what has emerged in the discussion is that taking the monkey off someone else’s back and placing it on our own back isn’t helpful – potentially it undermines the other’s confidence, trust (including in themselves), opportunity to learn and grow …
    And if continued as a pattern becomes a habit with poor consequences for both parties ….

  7. Reblogged this on SQL Hammer and commented:
    I have struggled to learn how to stop feeding the monkeys for quite some time. I’m happy to see that commitment is being listed as a major factor here. I find lack of commitment to be far more common then lack of competency.

  8. Pingback: Don’t feed the monkeys 3 ways to help people solve their own problems | SQL Hammer

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  10. I like it. How do you develop a culture that welcomes subordinate employee problem solving?

    • Hi Mikio,

      There are many ways to accomplish that goal, but one specific strategy that comes to mind is training leaders to help facilitate the problem solving of their people. It’s very tempting for leaders to want to solve the problem or provide the answer, but when they do that, it prevents the employees from learning how to do it on their own.

      Take care,


  11. Pingback: Don’t Feed The Monkeys! 3 Ways To Help People Solve Their Own Problems | KeenLand

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